Blondel, Maurice (1861–1949)

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Maurice Blondel is considered one of the foremost French Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century. Blondel was born at Dijon. He studied at the local lycée, and in 1881 entered the École Normale Supérieure, where he was taught by Léon Ollé-Laprune. Because of pragmatic tendencies in his thought, Blondel's name was associated for a time with the modernist movement. He was, however, essentially orthodox, and his work has been increasingly influential among those Catholic thinkers who look for an alternative to Thomism.

Through Ollé-Laprune, Blondel was influenced by John Henry Newman's theory that belief is a matter of will as well as of logical demonstration. Blondel was far from being a thoroughgoing pragmatist or vitalist and showed none of the naturalism of thinkers like Henri Bergson and James, yet he held that truth is to be reached not only through the intellect but through the whole range of experience, and to this extent he departed from the emphasis on rational demonstration found in traditional Catholic philosophy. Most of Blondel's teaching was done at the University of Aix-en-Provence, where he taught from 1896 until his death.


An extended statement of Blondel's philosophy is found in the book L'Action, first published in 1893 and revised near the end of his life. This book should not be confused with another of the same title, published in 1937.

The claim of Blondel's early work is that philosophy must take its impetus from action rather than from pure thought. The expression "action" is used in a wide sense to refer to the whole of our life, thinking, feeling, willing. Blondel tells us that it is to the whole man in his concreteness that philosophy must look in its quest for truth. One must turn from abstract thought to actual experience in all its fullness and richness. It is indeed this experience itself that motivates the philosophical quest, for man by his nature must act, and then he cannot help questioning the meaning of his action. Blondel anticipated the ideas later developed in existentialism when he pointed out that although we have not chosen to live and know neither whence we come nor even who we are, we are continually taking action and engaging ourselves in chosen policies.

Blondel rejected any nihilistic attempt to set aside the question of the meaning of action, and he had an ingenious argument to show that we cannot be content to say that action has no meaning. He claimed that to affirm nothing is really to affirm being. The very idea of nothing can be formed only by conceiving something positive and then denying it. There is something positive and affirmative underlying the denials of the nihilist, and even from his pessimistic view of life he derives a certain satisfaction. Blondel argued that the nihilist's nothing is his all. The very extent of what he denies reveals the greatness of what he wishes, for he cannot prevent affirmative ideas and aspirations from asserting themselves in the midst of his denials. Therefore, Blondel claimed, the problem of action and of its meaning must have a positive solution.

This solution is to be sought by means of a kind of phenomenology of action, though a phenomenology that is meant to show that we must pass beyond the phenomena to the discovery of the "supraphenomenal." We are impelled to this solution by reason of an immanent dialectic in action itself, made clear by a phenomenological description.

The basis of the dialectic is the gap between action and its realization. Man cannot in his action equal what he himself demands, and so there is in life a permanent dissatisfaction set up by the contrast between action and the realization at which it aims. This impels man to further action, and in the effort to close the gap, Blondel visualized the expansion of action in terms of an ever-wider outreach. Self-regarding action passes over into various forms of social action, and these in turn come to their limit in the highest type of moral actionthat which aims at the good of all humankind.

But although this process partially overcomes the contrast between action and its realization, it never does so completely, and the gap reappears at each stage. There is no immanent solution to the problem of action. But we have seen already that an affirmative solution is demanded, and Blondel claimed that the demands of action itself point us from the immanent to the transcendent or supraphenomenal. The Catholic dimensions of Blondel's philosophy become fully apparent at this point, for it is essentially a philosophy of grace. God is immanent within man, in the sense that human action is already directed beyond the phenomenal order. To will all that we do will is already to have the action of God within us. Yet this quest for realization would be a frustrating one were it not that God in turn moves toward us in his transcendence, and human action is supported and supplemented by divine grace.

Since action is concrete, the beliefs that arise out of action and the experience of acting are not abstract formulations. It is in action that we apprehend God, but if we try to imprison him in a proposition or prove his existence by a logical demonstration, he escapes us.

In La pensée and subsequent writings, Blondel gave a more prominent place to thought and modified some of the anti-intellectualist tendencies that characterized his earlier period. At the same time, he reduced the differences that had separated him from traditional Catholic philosophy. But it must not be supposed that he departed in any essential respect from his philosophy of action. Thought and action were never rival principles for Blondel, but were at all times to be taken together. Action is no blind drive, but always includes thought; thought can attain its philosophical goals only as it remains closely associated with action. Thus, in his later phase, when he reconsidered the rational proofs of theism, he claimed that these proofs are possible only on the basis of a prior affirmation of God that has arisen out of our experience as active beings.

See also Action; Bergson, Henri; Dialectic; Existentialism; James, William; Modernism; Newman, John Henry; Nothing; Thomism.


works by blondel

L'action: Essai d'une critique de la vie et d'une science de la pratique. Paris, 1893; rev. ed., 1950.

La pensée, 2 vols. Paris, 1934.

L'être et les êtres. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1935.

L'action, 2 vols. Paris: F. Alcan, 1937.

La philosophie et l'esprit chrétien, 2 vols. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 19441946.

Exigences philosophique du christianisme. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1950.

works on blondel

Dumery, H. Blondel et la religion. Paris, 1954.

Dumery, H. La philosophie de l'action. Paris: Aubier, 1948.

Lefèvre, F. L'itinéraire philosophique de Maurice Blondel. Paris, 1928.

Taymans d'Eypernon, F. Le Blondélisme. Louvain, 1935.

Tresmontant, Claude. Introduction à la métaphysique de Maurice Blondel. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963.

John Macquarrie (1967)